American Ancient People and Skull Wars
Since the discovery of the territory of the modern United States of America and for a long time, Euro-Americans have sought to understand the origin of the locals living here. Moreover, they tried in every possible way to prove that another more developed race lived here before the Indian tribes – the Caucasians. Mostly white scientists put forward assumptions that were more beneficial for the conquerors. These views interfered with the adequate perception of America’s indigenous people and gave rise to many unusual theories. Despite many attempts to diminish the importance of the Indian people, most studies continue to prove their primacy on American land.
It would seem that scientists of recent decades should be free of prejudice and reflection within the race concepts framework. However, the skeleton known as Kennewick Man or Ancient One, found in the mid-90s of the last century, again raised debate about who was the first in American. According to the scientist, the first to study the skeleton, his characteristics were more suitable for a white person than the ancestor of the Indians. Anthropologists expressed a desire to investigate the remains further to verify their assumptions. Representatives of the Indian tribes, in turn, declared the remains their ancestor and demanded that they be returned for burial according to folk traditions. Contradictory intentions resulted in a confrontation in court in the case of Bonnichsen et al. v. United States of America (Thomas 2001). In the book Skull Wars, David Hurst Thomas traces the origins of the conflict between Indian peoples and predominantly white anthropologists studying them.
The Indians’ perception, their place in the past of America, and their attitude towards them changed in accordance with the most influential trends in the scientific community. Christopher Columbus compiled the first opinion about them and, for a long time, it was rooted in public opinion. The explorer divided them into noble Arawaks that he met and the savage tribes of cannibals living in the Caribbean.
Later, various thinkers joined the compilation of an opinion on Indian peoples. For example, the Frenchman Georges de Buffon expressed the view that on American lands, the environment affects the degradation of nature and people, in particular the Indian tribes, presenting them as weak and stupid. Although his work had no basis other than assumptions, it had an influence. Thomas Jefferson sought to refute this data by writing his own work. However, he was little acquainted with the Indians, and “this lack of familiarity is what caused Jefferson to study Indian people from a detected, scientific perspective” (Thomas 2001, 35). This position defined the attitude towards Indians as a species, part of nature, and justified nineteenth-century anthropologists’ views.
The perception of the people as a separate species intersected with the dominant theories of the century. In this way, for a long time, the study of Indian peoples was grounded on racial determinism, the basis of which was formulated by Johann F. Blumenbach (Thomas 2001). Scientists were especially attracted to the study of skulls, in which they tried to prove the superiority of the white race. Such assumptions became the ideal justification for slavery, and the various peoples of the world became divided. After this, “noble he might be, the American Indian was properly grouped with the inferior races—all afflicted with darker skins, flawed behavior, and second-rate biology” (Thomas 2001, XXX). Moreover, the combination of all the dominant scientific opinions led to the fact that, for anthropologists, the Indians became representatives of the initial stage of evolution.
As science developed, theories and assumptions became more justified and adequate from a modern point of view. In Europe, remains and tools were found, thanks to which it was possible to know the past better. Anthropology has become a profession, and scientists aimed to find similar fossils on American territory. As a result, evidence was found of the people stay who were called Clovis. It echoed the theory that people entered North America after passing the Bering Strait about 13,500 years ago and were ancestors of Indians. It has a lot of proof: “The combined linguistic, genetic, and archaeological evidence still points to a Bering Strait crossing” (Thomas 2001, 167). However, this version is becoming less and less popular, as archaeologists have found increasingly old settlements.
Since Clovis theory dominated for a long time, several more ideas were put forward on its basis. For example, Thomas (2001) points to a discussion that connects American Clovis with the French through the Solutrean culture. Linguists, in turn, usually divide people into language groups. For example, Joseph Greenberg supposed “speakers of the Amerind, Na-Dene, and Eskimo-Aleut language families” (Thomas, 2001, 173). Later studies identified 143 Indian languages and suggested that they had one ancestor who lived about 60,000 years ago.
The development of technology has offered a new and more accurate view of the ancient people of America. Molecular areologists examining the DNA of representatives of various tribes of Indians found that they had a common ancestor in the interval from 15,000 to 40,000 years ago. After they were geographically divided, which caused modern differences, although not very significant. More recent studies have established a more accurate period – 22,000 to 29,000 years ago (Thomas 2001, 176). It is important to note that genetic differences began to appear after coming to the American land, which means that this ancestor was here before Clovis. Such incredible and unsettled results inspire scientists to new researches.
In conclusion, constant attempts to find evidence of whites’ primary presence in America indicate scientists’ desire to consider Indians only as part of American history and not its beginning. This assumption is especially brightly evidenced by the period when Euro-Americans were convinced that the Indian peoples would soon disappear and remain only in the past. Moreover, the author of the book notes that “Many mainstream Americans still believe that “real, authentic” Indians did indeed van a century ago” (Thomas 2001, XXXVIII). Nevertheless, the text describing the researches of the Indians shows a constant division into distinct groups – not only “Native Americans,” but bad or good, barbarian or people of nature, a backward race, and many others. Newer research, using fossil and analysis results as evidence, proves that Indians should be considered precisely as the indigenous people of America.
The scientific community has achieved significant success not only by using new technologies but also by steps towards freedom from prejudice. Nevertheless, Thomas notes the disrespectful attitude of scientists to the history and traditions of the Indian peoples and expresses the wish that scientists work more responsibly with them. Moreover, public opinion can still be influenced by books and the history that the winners write. Thus, the goal to be achieved is respectful cooperation with representatives of other cultures and traditions in search of truth.
Thomas, David H. 2001. Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity. New York: Basic Books